Tackling Stress in the Workplace

9 minute read | 07 November 2018 10:00:00 GMT


The results of the CIPD Health and Wellbeing Survey 2018 has shown that the UK is facing a mental health challenge with increasing levels of work-related stress and mental ill health absence. Many employers are now recognising the importance of looking after their staff and the need to take a strategic and integrated approach to health and wellbeing or risk an unhealthy, unproductive workforce.

The CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, has released its 18th annual survey report in partnership with SimplyHealth. The survey of over 1,000 HR professionals examines one of the most pressing issues of the modern workplace; the health and wellbeing of people at work.

The results highlight the key priorities for employers and HR professionals to help encourage healthier workplaces.

Key Findings

Organisations vary considerably in how proactive they are in promoting employee well-being:

  • Two-fifths of employers have a standalone well-being strategy.
  • 55% say wellbeing is on the agenda of senior leaders.
  • Almost half report that line managers understand the importance of wellbeing.

Attendance and absence trends and patterns: 

  • The average level of employee absence is 6.6 days per employee per year.
  • 22% of organisations reported mental ill health as the primary cause of long-term absence, compared to 13% 2 years ago.

Unhealthy patterns of behaviour show that: 

  • 86% of organisations have observed presenteeism (people being at work for more hours than is required) over the past 12 months.
  • Over two-thirds have noticed leaveism, when people are working when they should be on leave.
  • The minority are taking steps to discourage unhealthy working behaviours.

The greatest risks to employee wellbeing are psychological:

  • 37% of organisations report that stress-related absence has increased.
  • 55% say that reported common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression have increased (41% in 2016)
  • Workload, management style, deadlines and relationship/family issues are the top causes of stress.

What do these results mean?

The growing awareness of mental health is promising. Employers are recognising the importance of looking after their staff and the need to take a strategic and integrated approach to health and wellbeing by having a standalone wellbeing strategy as part of their overall organisational strategy.

That said, the levels of work-related stress and mental health-related absence are still not improving; mental ill-health is an even bigger issue for organisations than it was 2 years ago. This supports the findings of the government commissioned Stevenson-Farmer Thriving at Work review of mental health in 2017 which concluded that: “The UK is facing a mental health challenge at work that is much larger than we had thought”.


So if more people are talking about mental health, and employers are recognising its prevalence in the workplace, why are levels of work-related stress and mental-health related absence, not improving?

Causes of Stress

The main causes of stress at work have changed very little over the last few years. Workload, management style, pressure to meet targets and non-work factors (relationships/family)  are listed among the top main causes of stress at work.


There are, of course, many external factors that can cause stress too. An ageing population, personal relationships and the political and economic climate can all play a part on a person’s health and wellbeing. Although these are outside of an employer’s control, it’s important for organisations to recognise the link between people’s work and domestic responsibilities. Many find it difficult to leave their personal issues at home, and vice versa. Organisations need to be aware of the complexity of people’s lives and treat them as individuals.

There are many factors that are within an employer’s control. Workload continues to be the top cause of stress. We know that the modern workplace is fast and challenging; it prompts us all to take on more responsibilities and work longer hours. But this increased level of work doesn’t necessarily result in increased performance or indeed increased productivity. In fact, it leads to stress, poor work-life balance, mistakes and ultimately being burnt-out. 

The Health and Wellbeing Survey also showed that technology is having an impact on people’s mental health, with 87% of respondents citing an inability to switch off out of work hours. Add to this a sharp rise in the number of people working while they are unwell (presenteeism) and even using annual leave to cover themselves when they’re feeling ill (leaveism), and the result is an unhealthy workforce. 

Tackling Work-Related Stress

The HSE points out that:

“Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it”

An organisations greatest asset is its people, and the biggest asset they have is their health and wellbeing. So it makes good business, moral and legal sense to look after their everyday health. If employers are serious about tackling work-related stress, it’s important that they invest in a holistic strategy, and that a health and wellbeing strategy is at the core of their values.

Stress risk assessments

As with most problems, employers first need to dig deep to identify the root cause of stress and take action to combat it. There’s a range of methods available to do this. Flexible working options to help improve work-life balance, employee assistance programmes and staff surveys/focus groups to identify causes are amongst the most popular methods to identify and reduce stress in the workplace. Stress risk assessments/audits are also extremely valuable. The HSE website has a vast amount of practical tools and resources to help organisations carry out and record stress risk assessments.

Employee Wellbeing

Employee wellbeing and mental health are intrinsically linked, so being proactive in promoting employee wellbeing will play a major impact in tackling work-related stress and mental-health absence. It’s uplifting to see that more and more organisations (two-fifths) are taking steps to promote mental health, collective/social relationships, physical health and good work. Most organisations provide one or more wellbeing benefits to employees such as free eye-tests, access to counselling, employee assistance programmes, lifestyle advice and wellbeing days. 

Respondents whose organisation had health and wellbeing activities in place during 2017 believe they had positive results, including better employee morale and engagement (44%), a healthier and more inclusive culture (35%), and lower sickness absence (31%).



An effective health and wellbeing strategy requires involvement from the entire organisation. Good leadership and people management are the foundation of building a safe and healthy workplace, so the commitment of senior leaders is crucial for pushing forward a holistic health and wellbeing agenda, particularly if they want to make a long-term and sustainable difference.

How senior leaders behave, and what they prioritise, will send a very powerful message to what’s valued in their organisation. Even small changes can help employees feel more valued, and when people feel valued, they engage more with their organisation.

HR management is essential in making sure the health and wellbeing strategy is followed. They make sure that senior leaders regard it as a priority, and that employee wellbeing practices are integrated in the organisation’s day-to-day operations. It’s HR that can really embrace health and wellbeing as a holistic practice, aligned with corporate goals, as they are the ones who will appreciate the benefits.

People Management

Line management plays a pivotal role in managing workplace stress and promoting employee well-being. After all, they are the ones who influence employees, deliver policies, and are the first port of call if someone is feeling under pressure or unwell.

Managers don’t need to be health experts, but they do need to recognise the value health and wellbeing at work and be able to spot early warning signs of stress and ill-health. Moreover, they need to have the confidence to be able to have difficult and sensitive conversations with employees, offering an olive branch and directing employees to appropriate sources of help.

“Our findings show that health and well-being activity has more positive outcomes where line managers are bought in to the importance of well-being.”


Perhaps the most important factor is creating a workplace that’s inclusive, open and based on trust. Employees should feel confident about discussing mental health issues and the challenges they are experiencing without fear of judgement, or indeed dismissal. By promoting employee wellbeing and increasing the awareness of stress and mental health, organisations will begin to create a workplace that’s safe and healthy.

Ultimately there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to designing a health and wellbeing strategy. What’s important is that organisations have one and it’s based on their unique needs and those of their employees. Get beyond absence figures and understand behaviours and patterns in the workplace to get to the root problem.

If organisations are aware of the challenges faced by their employees, there is supportive dialogue between the employee and their line manager, and there are supportive measures in place to help them, then they’ll be well on their way to making a difference to work-related stress within your organisation.

Find out about the Stress & Wellbeing Toolkit



Sian Thomas

Sian is the Human Resources Manager at Astutis and has over 19 years experience in the health and safety training environment. She is responsible for all the HR needs of the Astutis team and has implemented a number of new initiatives to improve workplace wellbeing.